Upstairs @ Ye Olde Rose & Crown, 01 July 2011
While watching All Star Productions revival of Howard Goodall’s 1986 musical Girlfriends I was reminded of the sheer vastness of new British writing since the 1960’s. It can seem that there is a play for any occasion; metaphor for the crisis in Serbia? Try Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Verbatim reportage on a racist killing? How about Colour of Justice. Dissident Russian’s that require a full-scale orchestra? Stoppard’s Every Good Boy…should hit the mark.
Given this incredible legacy that exists it’s dispiriting to scan the West End and see endless Musicals based on bands – Thriller / Jersey Boys; films – Legally Blonde / Shrek; or written by Andrew Lloyd Webber Shakespeare – seemingly everything else. All Star Productions should be congratulated for getting their hands on this little known musical that is written by one of our best known composers and with input from a young Richard Curtis. It may not be a classic but a man who has won an Ivor Novello, a BAFTA and been nominated for an Emmy is more than capable of writing a few catchy tunes. The fact it is a completely original musical comes as a huge relief and at least a modicum amount of time has been devoted to a plot and characters, which if wafer-thin, is always engaging.
Girlfriends is an ensemble piece dealing with the life of women in the RAF (known as WAFs). It charts their journey as the excitement of helping the war effort fades into both disillusionment with war and disillusionment with the men fighting it. The script feels heavily influenced by the Greenham Common peace camp and throughout there is a strong feminist message of empowerment. As a result it can come across as slightly stilted and polemical as characters jostle to establish their individual characters; the role of Jasmine is particularly afflicted by a rather unrealistic moral code.
However the songs and lyrics show a lightness of touch and, being an ensemble, each of the actresses are given their own chance to shine. While the solo’s were good, it is in the chorus that the real show-stopping numbers are unveiled. The multi-part harmony between Sgt Woods, Amy and Jane in the Control Tower remains particularly memorable, as is the evident joie de vivre expressed in ‘Another last night’.
A criticism would be that, partly due to the decision to place the orchestra behind the audience, one did feel trapped between the singers and the orchestra. There was an impression that a competition was taking place to see who could deliver the most bang for their buck; as a result one felt occasionally deafened by singers going toe to toe with the band. However that is a minor gripe and the female parts, forming a strong-knit centre, dominate the play. The actor’s performances are solid throughout with a number of excellent set piece moments.
Stand-out mentions should go to the sterling work down in the in the supporting roles of Sgt Woods and Karen, who were both outstanding without overshadowing the core roles. Special mention must also go to both the men; Brendan Matthew’s extracted every ounce of comedy out of the role of Gareth, whilst Mark Lawson was superb as the brash pilot Guy; bringing subtlety to a slightly two dimensional role and finding a vocal style that was well0judged for the type of venue.